[7 November 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It comes toward the end of this amazing documentary, and sums up the overall situation quite nicely. Jesco White, famed mountain folk dancer and last bastion of his equally well known father’s hillbilly superstardom gets a tattoo which he believe accurately reflects his lifelong struggles. On the one side of the booze and Confederate flag draped body art design is Elvis Presley. He represents Jesco’s fun loving side, the desire to entertain and enjoy life, to tap his toes and crack people up. On the other side is Charles Manson, an icon of evil so specific and harsh that it indicates just how close our subject is from killing everyone he sees. Taken in total, it’s obvious - Jesco is a man made up of extremes - extreme joy and anger, extreme happiness and extreme violence - and both sides can be very seductive indeed.
Such a sentiment could be applied to any one of his extended family, a West Virginia clan so legendary that everyone who resides in Boone County knows their name. Notorious doesn’t begin to describe the Whites, nor the brilliant documentary that follows them for an entire year. Directed by Julien Nitzberg (who initially met the clan when he worked on the 1991 film Dancing Outlaw) and championed by Jackass‘s Jeff Tremaine and Johnny Knoxville, The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia is a gem, a peek inside the true heart of America that most suburban SUV heads probably consider as nothing more than rural myth. These self described redneck hillbillies, this dope dealing, pill snorting, felonious outlaw brood may seem shockingly untamed on the outside. But inside, in between the white trash aesthetic and “don’t give a f*ck” demeanor are some decent, if slightly sad, fringe dwelling folk.
When their proud patriarch D. Ray White died, his surviving family seemed to simultaneously explode and implode. Even with Momma Bertie Mae “The Miracle Woman” trying to keep things under control, her role as maternal watchdog prevented her from true discipline. That meant their hell raising sons and equally feral daughters could finally kick up their heels and be free of some strict, overbearing ways. In between trips to jail and too close to home homicides, personal misunderstandings and standoffs with society, the Whites cultivated a reputation of rebel yell excess, of hard drinking, even harder living, and more miscreant behavior than a whole household of Margeras. Passing on their confrontational swagger to their offspring, we soon find ourselves following Kirk, mired in prescription drug abuse and fighting CPS to be reunited with her newborn daughter. We also follow Jesco and his self-styled schizophrenic exile, and a just released from prison Mamie as she tries to retrieve her conniving, two-timing husband from the arms of another woman.
With its cinema verite style and the brazen honesty of its subjects, The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia becomes an instant classic, a kind of post-modern revisionism of such previous family oriented documentaries as Grey Gardens and Brother’s Keeper. In the hand of Nitzberg, whose friendship based access is extraordinary, the film functions as freak show, cautionary tale, found comedy, frightmare, and perhaps most importantly, a window beyond the white picket fences and weekly Wal-Mart trips of most mainstream America. This is the real world of life in these United States, small collectives of concerns which resonate and repel as they signify the state of the country’s philosophical collapse. No one would argue for the White’s way of doing things, but in many ways, they are closer to the so-called American Dream than many in their specific predicament.
Sure, they scam Social Security out of several disability checks a month (something D. Ray learned to do early on), manage to maintain their whiskey and processed food fueled ways with little or no legitimate income, and always seem to walk away from the most illegal activity with some portion of their pride and personal freedom intact. Even Maime’s old boyfriend Charlie Hastings, who had half his face blown off by one of the White offspring (and lived to tell about it) feels a small amount of sympathy for the family. As local officials complain about and condemn their actions, there’s always a smile on their face. Apparently, as part of their make-up, the Whites are almost incapable of making a true enemy. Those who really hate the clan either wind up dead, or serving time for killing one of them.
The film functions the same way. We are shocked when Kirk, swollen and groggy from just giving birth, smashes up some painkillers and snorts them…in her hospital room. We wince as Jesco walks down a Boone County street and points out the various locations of his numerous crimes and misdemeanors. We initially laugh at Tylor, hopped up on six cans of sugary soda and literally bouncing off the walls. But when speaking about his mom’s ex-boyfriend Dennis, the grade schooler is all middle fingers and scary threats of decapitation. Nitzberg clearly wants to show us that the sins of the father don’t fall too far from the rest of his relatives. All the boys initially followed D Ray into the world of mountain dancing. Those who didn’t die either stuck with it (Jesco) or ran off to find a better life.
Indeed, Poney is the sole member of the Whites who found something better outside of Boone County. His small section of the film (he now lives in Minnesota) suggests hope and the toxic nature of being close to the rest of his kin. In fact, it seems clear that the Whites are like a self-sustaining system of scandal. With each member supporting and assisting the other, everyone guarding the other’s back, they’re like a toothless Southern drawling mafia. All they need is a recognizable Don and a penchant for hired assassins and they’d be a countrified Cosa Nostra. Instead, the Whites continuously spin out of control, only to reel themselves in just long enough to avoid any long lasting consequences. When one ends up sentenced to something more than a short incarcerational vacation, the news is indeed shocking.
Like the best documentaries, The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia is a slice of life you never see coming. Stories and subjects like these only exist in stereotypes and jokes regarding same, right? What Nitzberg and his crew do so brilliantly is let the true nature of these people come out - their antisocial anger and refusal to conform, their complicated heart and their stubborn, stunted head. Sure, it’s hard to be 100% behind them, especially since most of their jokey joie de vivre comes from a beer bottle, a marijuana joint, or a handful of pills. But as a means of coping, as a way of turning the corrupt coal town mentality their father grew up and served in on its ass, the White’s way seems to work best. It’s not often you meet someone who believes himself a combination of the King of Rock and Roll and callous counterculture cruelty. Oddly enough, Jesco isn’t the only one with such a stark light and dark side. Such a schism is part of being one of the wild and wonderful Whites of West Virginia